Monday, June 29, 2009

Anatomy of a Good Laugh: Why Comedy Matters

I think comedy gets a bad rap. Maybe it's because no one takes humor seriously anymore.

This riff is coming from the same direction as my last post, in which I defended my reading habits. Then I thought some more about comedy, especially in light of a story that Anne Lamott tells in Bird By Bird about how she went to the bookstore looking for funny books about cancer. They looked at her strangely. Cancer is a terrible thing. All the more reason to find something to laugh about.

I'm not sure why humor is undervalued in our society. Maybe it has something to do with theind of non-hilarity found most often - very little of it is actually funny. Then we're told it's funny, and once we wind up in an argument over the subject, we begin to distrust humor.

Writing comedy is equal parts timing, surprise, and cleverness. I made that up, but I think it's about right. Princess Bride is hilarious because it took us someplace familiar before it went and threw a bunch of curveballs. Juno took critics and viewers by storm for many of the same reasons - this was a teen comedy that went places and dealt with issues in ways no one expected.

In one of his director commentaries (I think Runaway Bride), Garry Marshall said that every comedy needs a tragedy. Or something like that, it's been a while, but the point is that it can't all be laughs. Think about it. You're most ready, most grateful for a laugh when you've had your heart broken.

If we're so grateful for that laugh - and let's face it, with the economy where it's at, we can use a chuckle - why do we look at comedy the way we do, as the poorer cousin of drama?

Comedy is just as capable of moving us to reexamine our lives, but unlike drama, is less likely to hit us over the head with a message. Rather, comedy when done right has the ability to lull us into a sense of security before the aha! moment.

(You could have a whole conversation here about certain satires and dark comedy that can, indeed, knock you unconscious with its agenda, but the ones that do that aren't actually all that funny, and therefore don't count.)

And, according to WebMD (for all of those internet hypochondriacs out there), laughing is good for you.

So go ahead. Have a chuckle without shame.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The things we read

I haven't written about books since the June before I got married. You can read it here - I lifted it from its myspace blog purgatory and stuck it into my 2008 lineup (small aside - I had to wade through my old myspace blogs - many of which weren't bad - to find the one I'm referring to. At the top of the page was a banner add for Trojan, reminding me again why myspace is not my preferred method of social networking.)

Anyway. I know I write about my books, but I also avoid talking about the stuff I read.

Thing is, I've suffered from literature peer pressure. Or maybe that's not the right phrase. Let me put it this way - the book everyone's talking about, the beautifully written, potentially tragic character drama? I'm generally uninterested. The beautifully written, moving/heartbreaking story about something that happened, in a third-world country? Completely uninterested.

And I'm sorry. I know that my overall disinterest in Three Cups of Tea is a character flaw. It's not personal; it's just not my thing. I checked out The Book Thief, and don't think I ever cracked the cover. I think I got through a page of John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things. I don't know that I'll ever touch The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society with a ten-foot pole.

Oh well.

In my defense, some of the things I've avoided are because of WWII content. I'm sick to death of WWII. Seriously. The Nazis have been done, and unless they're showing up in Argentina years later (a la Notorious, you know, with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant), I'm really done with them. I did the research. I've seen the concentration camp. I wrote a report that so sickened me in college that I found myself watching American Idol to recover (never watched it since).

This is not to say that I don't read the occasional impressive book. Loved Timothy Keller's The Reason for God, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I read Blue Like Jazz before it was a cliche. I'm trying to think of impressive fiction that I've read without a gun or a grade held to my head, but drawing a blank.
Thing is, I think I got it into my my head as a child that reading was fun. I'm fairly certain that's what the posters in my elementary school's library said.
Because of that, I read fun books. I read YA fiction, Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries and more recently her Airhead books. Michael Buckley's Sisters Grimm: Fairytale Detectives books are delightful. For all of their faults, I read the Twilight books with incredible speed. Susannah also got me onto the Luxe books.
I feel slightly better about myself if the fun books are British. Hester Browne's Little Lady Agency books make me appreciate my own flatmate. Sophie Kinsella's heroine of the Shopoholic series had me at her packing list. Seriously. Kinsella managed to write a character who packed more for a weekend trip than I dreamed (then found a way for the luggage to go elsewhere, but never mind).
I love books with food in the story. Garden Spells, The Sugar Queen, The Matchmaker of Perigord, Chateau of Echoes, The Last Chinese Chef, Sweet Love, Sandra Byrd's French Twist books, Tender at the Bone, most everything by Ruth Reichl, really, Kissing Adrian, Serving Crazy with Curry, and Kate Jacobs' Comfort Food.
I love books about books (this doesn't count if the books are being read during WWII) - Geraldine Brooks' The People of the Book, Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale (which has the best medical prescription ever written into book), Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story and The Bronte Project.
Haven't even mentioned The Princess Bride or Gilbert Morris' All That Glitters, but at this point I think you're getting a decent portrait of my habits.
I know some people read to challenge themselves. I am not that self-actualized. Why should I be challenged by my reading when my writing, my home, my laundry, grocery shopping, traffic, empty gas tanks, bills, carpet stains, clutter, publishing, photo editing, marriage, all the forces of the earth move to challenge me. Why would I willingly add something else to that list? I'd rather have a good laugh. Go somewhere exotic. Get recipe ideas. Be swept up in a romance. Maybe learn about another culture or time period, think about an intriguing concept.
What do you think? What are some books you love but, possibly wouldn't advertise your affection for?
P.S. With any luck, I should be able to post the final cover for Plain Jayne shortly!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I've avoided mp3 players. To me, they're overhyped, overpriced USB drives with a headphone jack. We're swimming in charge cords anyway, so I never felt much like inviting another electronic into the fold.

Well, everything's changed. Kind of.

Around Christmas I desperately wanted to get Danny something gadgety, since I was already giving him a box of yarn (for a sweater I have yet to complete for him) and a dress shirt. I knew he'd liked the idea of using his phone as a music player, so I bought him the appropriate hardware.

Months later, that phone got crunched in the car door and got replaced. The new phone came with its own memory card - since Danny already had one, I inherited it. It's been in my phone for a month now, just sitting there, chatting it up with my SIM card. Until yesterday.

I wanted to get more exercise. I needed to be able to go walk and do it myself, on my own schedule. The trouble with that is I prefer to take someone to entertain me, having a famously short attention span. No, nature alone doesn't do it for me.

So I put a couple Imago Dei sermons onto the card. Instantly, I'm enjoying my walk and all of the ramifications are piling up.

I could listen to this thing at the grocery store. I could put chapters of a book on CD on, and listen to it while I push a cart around. It could revolutionize my attitudes concerning grocery shopping and long strings of errands that usually leave me lifeless and distraught at the end.

The mind reels.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

New thoughts on Amish Fiction

So. After enjoying several posts on the completely terrific Stuff White Christians Like blog, I started thinking.

There are some who find the content on the SWCL blog offensive. I'm sad for them; they have no sense of humor (ironically, they probably like Adam Sandler). Nobody likes white Christians. We are not hip. We are not politically correct. No one wants to see a white Christian on TV, at least not a white out-of-the-closet Christian, talking about Christian things.

All we have left is to make fun of ourselves. Not like it's hard.

Well, let's think of something else White Christians like - Amish Fiction. And see, I used to think it was about security, about knowing nothing truly awful was going to happen in an Amish book, about the soothing setting of the Amish kitchen.

Now I think it's all about white Christian un-hipness. Because when you look at it, Amish people are less hip than white Christians. I mean, they don't get to drive American-made cars. They don't even have an opportunity to argue about whether to call the sanctuary a sanctuary or a fellowship hall, because most Amish attend church in each other's homes.

White Christians love Amish fiction because it makes them feel hip by comparison.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Random on a Sunday

A few things...

I'm sorry to my subscription readers who received a short email post last night. There's some odd combination of keystrokes that makes a post publish, and when it publishes, it sends out automatically.

Those people already know some of the following information: the basil is still alive. It was the tiniest bit droopy when we got home last night, but after a watering it perked back up. Also found a tiny slug in the gerbera daisy pot. Probably the grossest thing I'll deal with for the rest of the month.

I spent Friday and Saturday at a marketing conference. We spent a lot of time talking about "brand." Thing is, the books I've got coming out in the near future are not the books I'll be writing in the slightly later future. We've decided not to worry about my brand until I've had a few books released and we get an idea of how things are working. I'm good with that.

Tomorrow morning, I get to sit down with my editor and edit through Plain Jayne. That's one of the happy things about living in the same city as your editor - you get to do these things in person! And while the drive time to her office is tax deductible, I don't know that I'll take it. It's just under a mile.

On tonight's schedule: going to my parents' house for dinner, Danny getting a haircut, and going to bed early! We're both still wiped after this weekend. We had to get up early. I hate getting up early. I became a writer so I wouldn't have to get up early.

Make sure to keep checking my posting places on and Burnside Writers' Blog. There are new posts showing up from time to time!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New Post Place

Forgot to mention this earlier, but I'm now contributing on occasion to the Burnside Writer's Blog. There are lots of different posts, ranging from theological thoughts, social justice, social commentary, and IPA rankings. Also some miscellaneous humor.

If any of you remember when my short story was published by the Ankeny Briefcase, just know that it's largely the same batch of people.
Check in from time to time if you're interested! I wrote a piece on Focus on the Family's The Truth Project. It's possible my next item will be on bathroom books. Haven't decided.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Basil in Danger

I bought a basil plant yesterday. I've wanted one for several months, but it wasn't until Trader Joe's had plants all but lining their store yesterday, for the happy happy price of $2.99, that I finally got to bring a plant home.

My history with living plants is...checkered. As a kid I brought potted violets back from my grandma's. I'd kill them, then she'd bring them back to life. My grandmother is a plant whisperer. That particular gene skipped my generation.

In college I had a little potted palm tree. It stayed alive for almost two years. Might have lasted longer if it were nearer to a.) a water source and b.) a waterer. When I left to housesit, it was never quite the same.

I want things to be different this time. To ensure the basil's survival, I also bought a small potted gerbera daisy. The daisy is the canary, the rose plant at the end of the grapevine. If it dies, it serves as a warning. I hope it doesn't come to that. It's cute and the blooms are red.

One of my favorite things to do with basil is to stack it with a roma tomato, fresh mozzarella, and a baguette slice. Basil goes on top - drizzle with olive oil. Perfect for a summer day. least, as long as the basil plant is still alive...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Way on Up

If you haven't yet, go see Pixar's Up. Whatever you're doing now can wait. Seriously.

To be honest, I was a little worried from the trailer. Pixar trailers do that to me. The one for Up makes you believe that it's a film about a cranky old man, a precocious boy scout, and their aimless journey through jungles via floating house.

Would you think from the trailer that it's a film about a man who's fighting to give his dead wife the one thing he thought she wanted? About a boy desperate for his father's affection? About the simple adventure of life? And yet it's all that and more, and I haven't gotten to the talking dogs.

I love the talking dogs.

The film opens with a newsreel, and the introduction of Carl and his future wife, Ellie. Ellie as a girl is all static hair, spunk, imagination, and adventure. She's Anne of Green Gables, the next generation. The characterization is so strong that when the movie proceeds through a silent sequence chronicling Carl and Ellie's adult life together, we have a firm sense of who this woman is and how completely she loves Carl.

Even after she passes away, she's still very much a part of the film's essence.

Carl is getting old. He has no interest in Shady Oaks retirement home. So little interest that the male aids who come to pick him up (one with an excellently animated mullet and scrub tag sticking up) get a little surprise from the AARP member whom they underestimated.

Thing is, Carl's got a stowaway in the form of a "Junior Wilderness Explorer" who's missing his Assisting the Elderly badge. Together, they make their way to Venezuela to fulfill what Carl believes to be Ellie's lifelong wish.

In the jungle Carl and Russel discover Charles Muntz, Carl and Ellie's childhood hero. Think of a mix of Indiana Jones, Charles Lindbergh, and Captain Ahab - that's Charles, floating around in his dirigible, hunting his very own white whale.

Charles keeps company with the talking dogs. Did I mention that? Yeah, I know it's the collars that talk, but whatever. The dogs are communicating in English (although there is potential for Japanese). And sure they can cook and perform tasks that would conflict the average family canine, but under it all, they're still dogs. Ever wonder what a joke would be like if a dog told it? You'll find out.

What goes down in that jungle is the meat of the movie. Two old men, fighting for their pasts, one of them ready to make the sacrifices to have a future. Loss. Destruction. Change. Hope.

And squirrels. Seriously, what more could you ask for in a movie?